On the Shoulders of Giants: An Interview with Myra Shays
Myra Shays is best known in our local LGBTQ+ community as the woman who brought PFLAG to Rhode Island. PFLAG (formerly Parents & Friends of Lesbians & Gays) is a support group helping people, often parents, cope with a loved one’s sexual or gender identity. You’d be challenged to find a more staunch ally than this nonagenarian mother of three, who found herself in need of PFLAG’s services when one of her daughters came out to her at 22 years of age. A born and raised New Yorker, Shays left for Providence in 1994, and four years later founded the PFLAG Providence chapter, serving as its president for 15 years.
Shays also happens to be Options’ longest-running volunteer, serving as a copy editor for the last 20 or so years, editing the Resources section, and writing several stories and many news briefs in that time. Former Options editor Kim Stowell said of Myra, “She did not hesitate to jump into the editing of articles about, for example, safe sex, asking lots of questions, which often charmed the other editors. She is remarkably open, curious, and perfectly comfortable being the only straight person in rooms full of crazy queers. She is a marvelous singer with a vast repertoire that includes lots of show tunes, so she’d often have everybody around the table singing. She is also good at telling a joke.”
Myra’s skills, wit, and curiosity have always been an asset around the Options table, though the pandemic has wedged some distance between her and the team. We corresponded over email to bring you this interview.
Options: You and your twin brother turned 90 years old this past autumn. What was your early childhood in New York City like?
Myra: We were raised in a working-class neighborhood [in Brooklyn] during the Great Depression – had to watch every penny. That’s why I’m so frugal now, I guess. My mother worked to support the family when that was rare. I went to public schools and then Tufts.
Options: Did you have any connection to (what was then known as) the Gay community before your daughter came out?
Myra: No. I thought if a gay man suffered discrimination he could just stop being gay.
Options: Do you know how it felt for your daughter to come out to you as a lesbian, and how did you and her father react when she did?
Myra: I don’t know how she felt, but I felt socked in the gut, though I shouldn’t have been surprised because she had so many gay friends. It didn’t occur to me to reject her, but I wanted to learn about homosexuality and luckily had heard of PFLAG. [My children’s father and I] were separated by the time she came out to us individually. He thought it was just a whim, that I shouldn’t “encourage” her.
Options: You were a member of a New York City PFLAG chapter alongside the mother of LGBTQ+ rights pioneer Frank Kameny. What influence did she have on you and the chapter?
Myra: We admired [Rae], mostly because she endured a long trip on the subway and back to attend. Also, she asked why she should resent Frank for not providing her with grandchildren when her other child, a married woman, chose not to have children.
Options: What brought you to Providence in 1994?
Myra: I had a 4-year-old grandson I wanted to watch grow up.
Options: Why did you create the PFLAG Greater Providence chapter, and what support did you have in its early days?
Myra: I couldn’t imagine life without PFLAG, so I established one. It was a job and-a-half. I was working full-time as a paralegal and had an active social life. But I was inspired by Jean Manford, who established the first chapter (in Queens) without an answering machine, a computer, a Xerox machine, a cell phone, email, or much else to make life easier.
Options: I was in touch with your daughter Barb who said of you: "She wrote and published our synagogue newsletter in the late sixties/early seventies. She used her typewriter, scissors, and tape!" Do you recall what Options' production process was like when you first began volunteering?
Myra: Yes, for about 15 years I did the temple Bulletin when “cut and paste” meant exactly that.
Options had a big office on Thurbers Ave. where we sat around and edited typed pages for two days. Then, when they were typeset, we came in once more to edit. About ten days later, bundles of copies of Options were delivered. Dozens of people came in to put labels on big envelopes, stuff, seal them, and stamp the overweight ones. It was a real happening — a very social occasion. Marriages came out of mailing nights.
Options: How has PFLAG changed over the years?
Myra: Now we meet via zoom because of Covid. Also, most of the newcomers are dealing with trans issues. Gay and lesbian issues seem to be more acceptable.
Options: How long have you been a volunteer copy editor for Options? Do you have any favorite memories of working on Options?
Myra: I think it’s about 20 years. It would have been longer but at first, I thought you had to be gay to work for Options. I have many good memories because my co-workers were talented (especially Jim Seavor) and pleasant. And I was gratified that my story about the gay rabbi at Temple Habonim was a cover story.
Options: What jobs or experiences helped you to develop a love for language and a passion for editing?
Myra: I had a third-grade teacher who was very into vocabulary, and other teachers who drilled everyone in grammar. I worked in PR departments, and in volunteer organizations, I always handled the newsletter and/or publicity.
Options: You graduated from Tufts in 1953. What did you study?
Myra: At Tufts, I studied to be a teacher. I never taught except as part of my training. But most people meeting me for the first time think I’m a teacher, which bothers me.
Options: I remember you often wearing a "Straight But Not Narrow" button while facilitating PFLAG meetings or attending community events and editing sessions. Did you ever receive any surprise reactions to the button, or did you often find yourself explaining its meaning?
Myra: I wear a Straight but not Narrow button on every jacket and coat I own — in other words, every time I leave my apartment. I’ve lost count of the people who say, “I like your button.” I reply, “Do you like it well enough to want one?” They say, “How much?” I say, “A dollar for the organization.” They say, “What organization?” I say, “PFLAG,” and go on to explain what that is if they don’t know. Once a flight attendant tossed a mini-bottle of Scotch into my lap after remarking on the button.
Options: Generally, I find the most staunch allies of the local LGBTQ+ community to have a deep sense of justice and passion for equality. Have you had any important experiences in which you felt your gender, faith, or age were reasons someone may have had limited or biased expectations of you?
Myra: No, I haven’t had any experiences of discrimination. But this was a good question. As for my passion for justice — frankly, a lot of the people who modeled this passion were Jewish, so I must have thought of it as a Jewish trait. Think about important names in the civil rights struggle — Jews are represented far out of their percentage in the general population (about 3 percent).
Options: Covid-19 has certainly challenged and limited all of us, and as an older person living solo in your East Side apartment building, I can imagine the isolation to be especially fraught. How have you managed?
Myra: I manage during the pandemic because I have a local daughter who is beyond amazing: takes me to doctors, solves every problem. As for her husband — I’m nominating him for sainthood tomorrow. And I live in a full-service building, which helps.
Options: I hadn’t realized that you volunteered for the GLBT Helpline for about eight years before it closed up shop. Do you have any memories of a significant impact the Helpline had?
Myra: Yes, I answered the phones one night a month — later more than one night as volunteers became scarce. We also met one night a month to trade advice and experiences and held an occasional fundraiser to pay the answering service that forwarded calls to us. Sometimes people called fallaciously or to have fun, like the man who had me on [a call] for about 20 minutes by saying a judge had given him a sentence for portraying a female attendant in a ladies’ room.
Once a woman called and the first thing she said was, “What would you say if I told you I had a loaded gun pointed at my head?” We had a very satisfying 20 or 30-minute conversation. I think [the Helpline] was valuable at the start because LGBT people were more closeted then, so information was more closeted too, even things like a gay-friendly real estate broker or dog groomer.
Options: Do you have any particular hopes for the future of Options, or Rhode Island's LGBTQ+ community?
Myra: I hope Options and the LGBT community thrive.
To connect with PFLAG Greater Providence for support or information, call (401) 307-1802, write to firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit pflagprovidence.org.
On the Shoulders of Giants is an interview series in Options started by the author in 2014 to showcase those who have dedicated decades to furthering LGBTQ+ equality in RI, and have made major contributions to our community’s shared history and victories. This is the thirteenth interview in the series.